More blood is shed, and Rin reappears.
It wasn't much of a song, and he was still too hazy with sleep to make out just what kind of birds they were. For a moment, he lay there in half-conscious peace, and he wondered how many birds had to die before the ones left stopped singing. He decided that they'd probably keep singing right to the end. Maybe they wouldn't even notice their losses.
He could feel sunlight teasing at his eyelids, but he refused to open even one.
A hand latched onto the back of his ANBU outfit and hauled him to his feet. "Hatake-san, you're awake," Shinzui said, his tone as delicately polite as ever.
Kakashi grunted and tried to shove him away. His head hurt--no, that wasn't it. There was a phantom pain lancing behind his left eye. He had a passing thought that perhaps Obito was annoyed with how stupid he'd been lately.
"You don't seem to be so enthusiastic about rescuing Rin-san today," Shinzui observed.
The words hit Kakashi like ice. He snapped his eyes open and staggered as he saw the world not quite in sync. Shinzui caught him, but he pulled free of his grasp and closed his left eye so he could steady himself. "Let's go."
"Not going to stop to have some rations?"
"We can eat while we're moving," Kakashi said sharply.
Shinzui said nothing as he scuffed out the signs of their presence and put his mask back on.
When Kakashi asked the question, Shinzui actually stumbled slightly and nearly fell from the branches. He turned it into a graceful descent at the last moment and landed soundlessly on the ground.
Kakashi dropped down behind him. "Who was that in the picture?" he repeated.
Shinzui was very still for a moment. "I don't think you need to know that, Hatake-san. It's a matter of the past, and we don't have time for that now."
"We're not that close to our targets yet," Kakashi said. "We don't need to be silent while we move." He did not take his gaze away from the other man.
After a long moment, Shinzui leapt back off the ground, blurring through the air until he caught hold of a branch. Kakashi did not hesitate in following him. It was not until several minutes after they had started moving again that Shinzui said, so quietly it was nearly lost in the rush of their passage, "The man in the picture was someone very precious to me, Hatake-san."
"Who--" Kakashi started to say, but Shinzui signaled sharply from ahead of him to cut him off.
"No," he said. "There's someone ahead of us. I believe it's one of our targets."
Kakashi could not help but wonder if Shinzui had waited until he knew they were approaching their quarry before saying anything, but it was pointless to contemplate for long.
Shinzui leapt back down to the ground, landing in motionless silence. His stillness made him nearly invisible. Nobody else seemed to occupy the clearing around him, but Kakashi could hear, very faintly, the rustles of someone circling slowly through the surrounding forest.
Kakashi remained balanced in the branches at the edge of the clearing. It was better up here than on the ground in so many ways.
He wouldn't have seen the grey shape detach from a tree trunk and run out at Shinzui if he'd been looking with the eyes of two days ago. As it was, he almost missed it. Shinzui also barely caught the approach in time. He tensed, preparing to dodge and counterattack.
But the attack, when it came, was not aimed at him. A keen-edged sickle on a chain whipped out in Kakashi's direction instead. No, that wasn't it--it wasn't aimed at him, either, although the difference was very subtle. It was heading for the base of the branches that held him up.
Kakashi waited until the last second, then rolled aside onto another cluster of branches, leaving a shadow clone where he'd been before. The branches and the clone tumbled down, and in an instant, the enemy lunged once more, a long knife appearing in his free hand.
At that point, the real Kakashi swung down out of the treetops and landed on the missing-nin's back. He slammed his fist into the other man's throat--not hard enough to kill, but enough to leave him weakened and breathless.
The enemy collapsed with a low grunt. Kakashi crouched over him, staring down at the grey-clad man, trying to find something that would differentiate him from any other human being. He couldn't find it. After a moment, he reached for his sword.
Shinzui's hand clasped down on his arm, and hard. He addressed the missing-nin, his tone cold and polite. "You need to tell us where the Leaf kunoichi you abducted is."
"She was the one who wanted to come," the grey ninja muttered.
Shinzui let out a small, carefully controlled sigh. "Very well." He let go of Kakashi's arm and walked around to kneel by their captive's head. He lifted it so that the man could not avoid his gaze--his Sharingan were activated now--and said again, "Where is the Leaf kunoichi called Hayashino Rin?"
"...two miles to the west, near the surface of an offshoot of the Shinkuu cave system."
Shinzui's serene lack of expression did not change. "How is she guarded?"
"My partner is there."
"And his defenses?"
"He was from Sand. He uses air jutsu and senbon."
Shinzui nodded slightly. "Thank you." He stood up. "Hatake-san..."
Kakashi stood up, one foot still on the grey ninja's back, and made as if to draw his sword. With it half out of the sheath, he paused. "What have you done to her?" he asked in a low voice.
He could see the very edge of the missing-nin's grin. "Too late. When I came out here to delay you two, my partner was already starting the jutsu."
"It's really a lot like the summoning contract she had you sign recently!" There was a manic edge to the grey ninja's voice. "Less consensual, though, and with a rougher crowd than her puppies. We've been working on it for--"
He was babbling now. Kakashi drew his sword out the rest of the way and drove it into their captive's back, through his heart and into the ground. He leaned on it and felt the blade sink deeper into the earth as it grew muddy with blood.
"Hatake-san," Shinzui said, "that's enough."
Kakashi yanked the blade out of the dying man. He did not bother to sheathe it before leaping up into the treetops and launching himself in the right direction.
The blood and earth were drying on his sword by the time he reached the edge of the forest and the start of the caves. He hit the ground, and as he straightened up again, Shinzui observed, "You should have cleaned that. A ninja must care for his weapons."
"Ninja are weapons," Kakashi said. He started for the cave mouth, only to stop as he saw light flicker inside it.
Rather anticlimactically, Rin walked out into the light.
She seemed unchanged, if a little pale. Kakashi ached with combined relief and worry. Then he opened his left eye, and he felt sick.
She looked /wrong/. There were inhuman things uncoiling from her center, devouring her own chakra as they stretched themselves out. He wanted to shout to her, warn her of the danger she was in, but what would he say? It wasn't the kind of danger they'd been trained to watch for. Sensei had never said anything about monsters that would tear up their soul.
Before he could say anything, though, she looked up. Her whole face brightened at the sight of him, making him oddly happy. At the same time, though, there was something off about her expression. He couldn't pinpoint it, but--
No. She looked scared.
She broke into a run in his direction, but then she stopped abruptly, jerking upright. Kakashi ran ahead to meet her halfway.
Or he tried to, anyway. Before he got more than a few steps, a concentrated blast of air slammed into his chest. He staggered back.
While Kakashi struggled to keep his balance, another man in grey materialized as if blown in on the wind. He smiled. "You must be Kakashi, and...whoever the other ANBU is. I don't know why my partner didn't take care of you, but--"
Kakashi lunged, his dirtied sword whipping around low to the ground to cut into his opponent's legs. Shinzui darted around from the other side.
Between them, the missing-nin exploded in a brutal blast of air. Kakashi saw it coming a moment beforehand, and he and Shinzui pulled back, but not in time. The blast knocked them onto their backs.
Shinzui was up an instant later, but before Kakashi could move, the grey shinobi standing over him, one foot over his solar plexus. "If you were going to come all this way," he said, "you could at least have been on time when you got here. But no, you're late."
Kakashi lifted his sword, but there was some kind of vortex spinning around the missing-nin, deflecting his blade. "You got what you wanted with her, then," he said. "Now let her go."
The grey ninja just smiled slightly and lifted a brow. "Rin," he called, "your boyfriend wants you back."
"I'm her teammate," Kakashi snarled. Now that he focused, the Sharingan could make out the subtle currents flowing around his opponent. "Not her boyfriend." He should be able to slip a blow in--
The missing-nin stepped down just so. Ribs cracked sharply. Kakashi tasted blood and realized he'd bitten his lip. It took a moment for him to realize that there was no longer a foot on his chest.
Instead, there was a rain of needles falling toward his throat. He was too dazed to move out of the way in time, but he could see them coming with perfect clarity.
Then they weren't there anymore. Rin's hand swept them out of the way, and then she stood facing the grey ninja, fury on her face. "You promised me you wouldn't hurt him."
"You don't need him anymore." The man sounded rather bored.
Rin stared for a moment longer. Then she said, "I did all this for him!" She reached out, and the alien chakra raced along her hand and bloomed outwards from her palm. Before he could do more than widen his eyes, the missing-nin was flung back by the force of it.
Right onto Shinzui's blade. "Thank you, Rin-san," the Uchiha said. He drew his sword out of his victim, took out a cloth, and began fastidiously cleaning the blood from it.
Kakashi couldn't stop staring at the swell of dark chakra inside of Rin's body. He pushed himself into a sitting position and reached for her. "Rin--"
What was he supposed to say?
I'm sorry I was late, maybe? But that couldn't possibly be enough.
Are you all right would just be absurd.
She turned to him with a small, broken smile, and he thought of what he had to say. The realization hurt worse than the broken ribs.
I love you.
But he couldn't say that.